I hear a lot of photographers say their influences are Robert Frank or Walker Evans, but they’re not mine,” says photographer James Welling. As a teenager growing up in suburban Connecticut, he spent his time looking at American painters like Charles Burchfield, Edward Hopper, and especially Andrew Wyeth. “It was a way of making visual sense out of what I would see walking home from school,” says Welling, who used to make watercolors of wintry scenes near Hartford. “Wyeth created his own world, and his work gave me permission to see the landscape—farms, suburban houses—as a place I could look at and paint.”
For his “Wyeth” series, on view at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford through July 22, Welling shot photographs in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, and Cushing, Maine, where the painter lived and worked. The show runs concurrently with “Andrew Wyeth: Looking Beyond,” giving museumgoers a chance to compare Wyeth’s work with Welling’s interpretation of it.
Welling says that the photos were a way for him to articulate an early artistic influence. Some of his quiet, somber images depict the same views Wyeth painted, although the land has changed over time. In Welling’s rendition of End of Olsons, trees obscure a distant cove that is visible beyond a steep rooftop in Wyeth’s 1969 tempera painting.
Other compositions are restricted by what the camera can record. Wyeth’s Groundhog Day (1959) bends the space of the Kuerner Farm kitchen in Chadds Ford. His scene includes a tabletop set with a plate and cup as well as the distorted view through the window behind it. Welling’s version depicts the same kitchen, but his photo simply looks down at the place setting; the window is only faintly reflected on the glossy white table.
But many images don’t have any particular precedent in Wyeth’s work. Two Trees (2010), which shows a pair of pines silhouetted against a turbulent evening sky, has more in common with Burchfield’s emotional views of nature. Other photographs make abstractions out of details from the landscape—a snow- covered rock, a muddy shore at low tide, leafless trees.
According to Welling, Wyeth, like a photographer, primarily selected from what he saw. “It’s less about making things up in the imagination than it is just incredible observation.” And, like some photography, his images are nearly monochrome. “He doesn’t really work in color,” says Welling. “It’s almost like a black-and-white rendition.”